Evaluation: With ‘Army of the Dead, ‘ Zack Snyder proves there is life after ‘Justice League’
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The opening credits for your zombie-packed heist thriller “Army of the Dead” play out over a buffet of Boschian images, emphasis on the buffet. The walking (and running) dead have overtaken Vegas, and the director, Zack Snyder, illustrates the fallout using a series of painterly Grand Guignol tableaus. Slot-machine junkies shed their earnings and their particular innards; infected strippers change a Roman bath right into a bloodbath. An aging Elvis impersonator wanders down the Remove, with only a telltale smear around his mouth to suggest he’s having an unique morning. Military forces are sent in to contain the risk, and when that fails, they will firebomb and wall off the entire city. What splatters in Vegas stays in Vegas.
Amid this chewy, gristly spectacle, Snyder’s own tongue remains firmly in cheek: From the brassy accompanying cover of “Viva Las Vegas” towards the bright, satirical gloss of the visuals, he’s soliciting more smirks than screams. He or she knows he’s picking on the bones of a genre that is already been cannibalized many times over; in pushing the carnage to numbing maximalist extreme conditions, he’s saluting and mocking his forebears and endeavoring to top them all anyway. Greater than anything, he’s trying to top himself, namely his own 2004 remake of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead, ” his first and greatest feature. (One of that movie’s juiciest moments featured the badly deployed chainsaw; in this particular one, the power tools — and the experts wielding all of them — have been significantly upgraded. )
Snyder’s lean, mean Romero riff launched his career; the particular gross, engrossing and sometimes weirdly moving “Army of the Dead” clearly means to resurrect it. And why not? The movie industry, slowly emerging from the non-zombie-related pandemic, could use a revival or two, as well as the 55-year-old Snyder is already this particular year’s designated comeback kid. After the 2017 debacle of “Justice League, ” the particular belated release of his studio-spurned four-hour cut gained him and his fans the measure of vindication or at least drawing a line under. Notably, Snyder was given complete creative control on “Army of the Dead” — a benefit of working with Netflix, which pulled the long-gestating project out of undead development hell and is planning a full business. (In a rare move, Netflix is opening the image in hundreds of theaters May 14, a week before it becomes available for streaming. )
Innovative control, of course , can be a difficult beast — sort of like the zombified white tiger that will roams the Vegas outskirts in a simultaneously tasty and tasteless nod to Siegfried & Roy. Mercifully, “Army of the Dead” doesn’t run four hours, though in 148 minutes it’s still the cinematic equivalent of the “shambler, ” to invoke that original subset associated with zombies that slowly stalk their prey in the classic Romero tradition. A more judicious hands might have reduced the narrative padding and sharpened (or eliminated) the strained tries at comic banter within the script, which Snyder co-wrote with Shay Hatten and Joby Harold. If the actions here is pretty cut-rate Romero, the team dynamics really are a far cry from Howard Hawks.
Nevertheless, the friendly-fractious camaraderie and shared sense of objective are there, much as they’ve been in every Snyder shared. Starting with “Dawn of the Dead, ” “300” and “Watchmen, ” nearly all his films have pitted a brave few against vast and sometimes undifferentiated enemy multitudes, a genre template that more than a few critics have interpreted with an objectivist/right-wing lens. (Snyder’s forthcoming adaptation of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” will surely offer them more ammunition. ) “Justice League” obviously continued in that vein, and so really does “Army of the Dead, ” though minus the overt trappings of heroism and sacrifice. The fighters we adhere to into Vegas aren’t looking to save the world; they’re mercenaries trying to lift $200 million from a casino vault, ideally without getting eaten simply by zombies or blown up by the nuclear bomb the Oughout. S. government is about shed on the city. So it is “Ocean’s 11, ” pretty much, at least until it becomes “Ocean’s Ten, ” then “Ocean’s Nine” and, well, you get the idea.
Some of these big, brash fighters are actually here before. Their innovator is Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a sensitive slab of muscle first seen in that early montage, knee-deep in Vegas carnage. That’s where he met other experienced fighters like Vanderohe (an excellent Omari Hardwick) and Cruz (Ana de una Reguera), both of whom he’s recruited for this objective, along with some fresh bloodstream including Mikey (Raúl Castillo) and Chambers (Samantha Win), both tough as fingernails, and genius safecracker Person (Matthias Schweighöfer, who increases on you even if he overdoes the bumbling comic relief). Rounding out the unconventional mixed bag of a solid are a fierce Nora Arnezeder as an expert local instruction; Tig Notaro as a cynical helicopter pilot; and Garret Dillahunt and Theo Rossi as two sleazebags you can not wait to see turned into Remove steak.
In order to its credit, though, “Army of the Dead” doesn’t constantly go straight for the apparent payoffs. Having opened with cataclysmic visions (complete with napalm-dropping echoes of “Apocalypse Now, ” one of Snyder’s favorite touchstones), it soon downshifts into a more unsettlingly intimate register — a little “Mad Max, ” a little “Escape From New York” — as Scott and his heavily armed crew attempt to stay as undetected as you possibly can. That means not only avoiding the shamblers but also negotiating with all the fast-moving, fast-thinking alphas, a good evolutionarily advanced breed of zombies who have turned this sinners’ playground into their own fallen kingdom. (They’ve holed up in a hotel called the Olympus, in the first but not the final of the story’s ancient Greek allusions. )
It’d be overstating the movie’s qualities to call it a return in order to “Dawn of the Dead” essentials for Snyder, given its more elaborate zombie mythology and its inflated budget and running time. But in comparison with the heavy, self-admiring sheen that has weighed down Snyder’s imagery since “300, ” the filmmaking here seems nimbler, grittier, more energized. The visuals don’t appear embalmed in their own magnificence; the most striking element of Jules Berghoff’s production design — the post-apocalyptic Vegas skyline, complete with denuded Luxor pyramid — is all the more persuasive for staying mostly within the background. Notably, this is the first feature that Snyder offers shot himself and the first one he’s shot entirely on digital, and while some of the images have a gauzily processed desert-mirage look, it’s fine to see him moving the particular camera and going simple on the slo-mo for a modify. (Also nice: a blink-and-you-miss-it shoutout to one of his frequent collaborators, the cinematographer Larry Fong. )
Other than that, for much better or worse, it’s very much a Zack Snyder creation: unwieldy but absorbing, awash in bone-crunching violence, stilted dialogue, ridiculous-verging-on-sublime needle drops (hello, Cranberries) and have-it-both-ways political subtext. The living dead outbreak allows for some borderline-topical satire that takes aim at liberal pandemic overanxiety and conservative police-state authoritarianism alike (though I really could’ve done without the Sean Spicer cameo). Snyder has often seemed to enjoy thumbing their nose at all sides, bold his critics to ask if he’s advancing, state, a neo-fascist aesthetic or even an implicit (and probably unwitting) critique of one. Within a sharply ambivalent recent essay for the Ringer, the critic Adam Nayman nailed an essential hallmark of Snyder’s work: “Even if we’re all watching the same film, we won’t be viewing the same things. ”
While that will likely demonstrate just as true of “Army of the Dead, ” the streak of sincerity is hard to miss or deny. The story’s key emotional arc involves Scott great estranged daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), who insists upon joining the mission inside a contrived subplot that nonetheless generates moments of uncooked, unembarrassed emotion. Snyder has turned the spotlight upon parent-child angst before (and spoken of his own recent family disaster ), and this line of the story can’t assist but take on a particularly poignant dimension. It also gives Bautista, an actor of limited range but irresistible existence, some expressive notes to play as this foolhardy mission’s trustworthy leader, turning his motley crew into a veritable Army of the Dad.
‘Army from the Dead’
Rated: R, for strong bloody violence, gore plus language throughout, some intimate content and brief nudity/graphic nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 28 minutes
Playing: Starts May fourteen in general release where theaters are open; available Might 21 on Netflix